No matter how difficult life is, there is a way to change your relationship to your suffering
Living in this constantly changing world can feel like being on a roller coaster ride with no end in sight. Just when you think things are settling down, you round the bend and you’re headed up the ramp for another plunge. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is the truth of suffering. As much as we don’t want to suffer, don’t like to suffer, try to keep suffering away, it is unavoidable. With the experience of pain, there is a survival reaction that instantly and instinctively commands fight or flight. We feel angry, we feel afraid, we feel pain.
Sometimes we augment the fight or flee imperative by creating a shield to protect us from the uncomfortable rush of anger and/or fear. This could be through a denial response like "no, not me, I don’t feel anything right now,” or we might respond by reaching for some distracting behavior or substance. It operates just that simply—experience a bad feeling, then soothe (distract) with something that at least for the moment creates a pleasurable and distracting response. The diversion can be anything. And if we choose the distraction over and over again, it can create a groove, a habit, an automatic habitual response, a compulsion. Just that simply, it is possible to slip into the territory of addiction.
Yes, the term addiction can seem daunting and, well, downright judgmental. But let’s loosen that up a bit. Keep in mind that addiction is not defined by how much of some activity you are doing or how much of some substance you are consuming, but rather by the effect on your life and the lives of those around you. It’s not about the activity or the substance being inherently bad. It’s that your use of the substance or activity is causing harm to yourself or others.
Addiction is fueled by avoidance, by the urge to get away from something painful, by the desire to avoid suffering. Ironically, the running away, the seeking of the balm, the avoidance creates—yes, that’s right—suffering. The avoidance actually creates an ongoing cycle of suffering rather than leading to relief. Investigation and liberation of the underpinnings of an addictive response will not instantly cure an addiction, but addressing a root cause lays the groundwork for beginning to free yourself from the addictive cycle.
An alternative to continuing to be at the mercy of the imperative to avoid pain (and seek pleasure) that also comes from Tibetan Buddhist teachings: compassionate, naked acceptance or “compassionate abiding.” It is not complicated, but does require that you operate counter-intuitively, in opposition to your instinctive survival impulses that tell you to get away from that which is painful.
The first step is to recognize that you are experiencing something that feels bad, that is painful, that you don’t like, something that causes you to experience an impulse to make the feeling stop. If you can notice when you are experiencing the “get angry” response or the “run away” command, you have caught the moment.
Now, instead of doing the next thing that the “get angry” or “run away” imperative demands, you have the option to let yourself feel and experience all of the energy of the anger, fear, or pain. Actually breathe it in. All of it. If it tries to slip away, invite it back in. This is compassionate, naked acceptance. Through this acceptance, compassion for yourself can arise. It is finally okay to feel exactly this angry, this sad, this hurt, this pained. You have room in your heart for this aspect of your humanity. Even this part of you can finally sit down and have a cup of tea at your table.
Compassionate abiding with your own instinctive energies is not a technique to get rid of them, not to grow them up, not to transform them into something else. It is simply allowing yourself to experience the anger, fear, or pain that is instinctively arising to get your attention. You truly cannot rid yourself of anger, fear, or pain. They are instinctive responses. You may attempt to avoid situations that give rise to these unpleasant responses, but it’s not possible.
By developing your capacity to compassionately abide, you increase the odds that you will not need to choose a familiar habituated distraction that you may have been using addictively. If you are on a particularly intense part of the rollercoaster ride of your life, you finally can choose to simply fully embrace the anger, fear, or pain you are experiencing and compassionately throw your hands up into the air.
Through this simple act of bringing compassion to your pain, you are joining in the fulfillment of the prayer to free all beings from suffering and the causes of suffering. Even if you have not been choosing an addictive response, fostering this powerful capacity to allow your own humanity is a key to the development of compassion, which creates a basis for the development of compassion for all beings.
Paldrom Collins is a former Tibetan Buddhist nun and co-author of A Couple’s Guide to Sexual Addiction: Step-by-Step Plan to Rebuild Trust & Restore Intimacy. Working with her husband and sex addiction expert George Collins at Compulsion Solutions, Paldrom counsels individuals and couples across the country.